China Escalates Crackdown On Internet Amid Scandal
China has stepped up its campaign to clamp down on the Internet, which has emerged as a virtual town square for exchanging information about the Bo Xilai scandal and the nation's biggest political upheaval in years.
The popular Twitter-like microblogging service Sina Weibo on Tuesday deleted the accounts of several users, including that of Li Delin, a senior editor of the Chinese business magazine Capital Week, whose March 19 post helped fuel rumors of a coup in Beijing. The service announced the move to many of its more than 300 million user accounts, thereby turning it into a public lesson in the consequences of rumor mongering.
"Recently, criminal elements have used Sina Weibo to create and spread malicious political rumors online for no reason, producing a terrible effect on society," the notice said. It said the deleted users have "already been dealt with by public security organs according to the law." Sina didn't return calls for comment.
In his March 19 post, Mr. Li told his thousands of online followers that he had hit an unusual amount of traffic on Beijing's roads. "There are military vehicles everywhere. Chang'an Avenue is under complete control," he wrote. "There are plainclothes police at every corner. Some intersections have even been fenced off."
His post, which has since been deleted, came just days after Mr. Bo was removed as party chief of the city of Chongqinq. It helped fuel rumors that a coup was under way, a story that spread across the globe and prompted a media crackdown by the government reminiscent of its response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations. Mr. Li has since been detained, according to people familiar with the matter.
The episode demonstrated both the power of China's new digital media and the Chinese Communist Party's increasingly iron-fisted effort to control it. In the wake of the coup rumors, authorities announced the detention of six people in relation to the rumors and the arrest of more than 1,000 others for what the authorities said were Internet crimes.
Media insiders describe a heavy hand at the nation's newspapers, with the government at times giving strict instructions on what stories about Mr. Bo could run. Discussion of the matter nonetheless has continued, fueled in part by social media and independent news websites outside of Beijing's control.
It is unclear whether the Sina notice was ordered by government authorities, who require Sina and other Chinese websites to police their own content, or if Sina itself issued the warning. But it is the most direct warning yet to Internet users to rein in the freewheeling discussion for which Sina Weibo is known.
The Chinese public's unprecedented participation, through unofficial news and social-media sites, in distributing information about Mr. Bo's saga represents a direct challenge to the Communist Party's monopoly on information. Years ago, turmoil within China's top leadership would likely have been kept secret.
Mr. Bo, a telegenic politician, was in part a product of new media, which helped him build a national reputation from his post in Chongqing. He was widely considered to be a candidate for a top party office in a leadership change expected to begin later this year.
His downfall began in February, when Chongqing Vice Mayor Wang Lijun went to the U.S. consulate in the Chinese city of Chengdu to seek asylum. Among the allegations he made to U.S. officials was that a British national named Neil Heywood may have been fatally poisoned in Chongqing in November after a falling out with Mr. Bo's wife, Gu Kailai.
In March, Mr. Bo was ousted as Chongqing party chief. On April 10, authorities said he is under investigation for alleged violations of party discipline, and that Ms. Gu is a suspect in Mr. Heywood's death, which they characterized as an "intentional homicide."
China's social media has followed each step—and sometimes has been a step ahead. In February, when police surrounded the Chongqing consulate, passersby turned to the Internet to report that something strange was going on.
On March 24, Chinese journalist Yang Haipeng drew a connection on his Sina Weibo account between a British national and the Bo family, including Mr. Bo's son, Guagua. "Deceased: Guagua's nanny. Nationality: British. Place: Chongqing. Handled by: Wang Lijun. Cause of death: Wang was not allowed to investigate. The body was not preserved and instead directly cremated," said the post, which was forwarded widely before it was deleted.
On Wednesday morning, Mr. Yang's Sina Weibo account was deleted, though the company didn't issue a notice. In an interview, Mr. Yang confirmed the deletion and said he had more than 247,000 followers before the account was closed. This week's crackdown shows it is "more and more dangerous" to write about the incident, he said.
"The most important effect of weibo is decentralization," said Qiao Mu, director of the Center for International Communication Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University, using the Chinese term for microblog. "Before, what the story is, who gets famous, everything was decided by the government. It was a centralized process. Now anyone can become famous. They don't need the government's permission. And anyone can put out news."
Social media has given legs to alternative news sources that formerly had loyal but limited readership, such as Boxun, a Durham, N.C.-based website run by what founder Watson Meng calls citizen journalists. Many aren't identified by name on the site, and Mr. Meng says even he doesn't know the real identities of some of them. "We understand the information they give us is sensitive," he says. "In the most sensitive cases, we don't ask for their identities. We can only say we trust what they tell us."
On March 15—just days before Mr. Li's fateful post—the website published a story, citing no sources, saying that Mr. Wang had turned evidence over to the U.S. consulate of a coup plot involving Mr. Bo to replace Xi Jinping as the next top leader. The account, which couldn't be independently verified, appears to have fed into the rumors that week.
Boxun's influence has increased during the Bo affair. According to Internet tracker Alexa.com, Boxun's visitors have jumped 160% over the past three months.
"All the high-level officials read" Boxun, said a Beijing-based media scholar with ties to Chinese state media. "The information on Boxun might not be vetted the way it is in the Financial Times or The Wall Street Journal, but they know that a lot of what appears there is true."
Boxun's Mr. Meng also is founder of the activist website China Free Press, which has received funds from a U.S. Congress-backed endowment and provides a forum for discussion of Chinese social and political issues. Mr. Meng says Boxun is operated separately and without financial support from China Free Press.
Social media has emerged as a challenge to the state propaganda machine at a time when state media companies have their own commercial ambitions. State-run news agencies have done more independent reporting and made investments in Internet products, such as their own search engines.
In the wake of the Bo affair, authorities have turned to the propaganda playbook of an earlier time. Traditional media has offered a steady steam of headlines that experts say hark back to the coverage of crises like the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and the Cultural Revolution.
Beginning in late March, a string of strident editorials in party and military newspapers urged readers to ignore rumors and emphasized the need for stability. "Ensure that the Armed Forces Resolutely Obey the Party Center, the Central Military Commission and Party Secretary Hu Jintao," read the headline on an editorial from the People's Liberation Army Daily on April 6.
On April 13, days after authorities revealed Mr. Bo had been stripped of all his posts, newspaper front pages across the country carried the headline: "Conscientiously Follow Party Discipline and National Laws." Underneath it was a commentary from the party mouthpiece, People's Daily, insisting that party members and the masses had accepted the wisdom of Mr. Bo's ouster.
"They're doing everything they can to paint him as a bad guy," said one editor at a prominent commercial newspaper, who compared the measures to what happened following the Tiananmen Square uprising and to the demonization of purged leaders during the Mao Zedong era. "We're only allowed to use Xinhua [articles] now," the editor added, referring to China's state-run news agency.
In late March, officials punished China's two largest microblog operators, Sina and Tencent Holdings Ltd., forcing them to suspend comments on their services for several days. The services also face a government requirement that users register their real identities with the companies to continue to post, although it isn't clear when that will be enforced.
Some traditional state-media outlets have subtly tested the limits. When Mr. Bo's dismissal from the party was announced, Chinese newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily, part of a regional media group known for pushing the boundaries of censorship, posted a photo of Mr. Bo bowing at a government meeting on Sina Weibo, poking fun at the end of the politician's career. "Ladies and gentlemen, goodbye," a caption read. The post was deleted almost immediately.
Whether or not intimidation measures will be effective, Weibo users seemed to get Tuesday's message loud and clear. Citing a Chinese saying that alludes to scaring someone by punishing someone else, a user going by the name Diao Jin Hu Chen said, "OK, the chicken has been killed. Now the monkeys feel the pressure."